Love, balls and German mechanics
I want to tell you about a hero of mine, a German auto-mechanic from Somerset West near Cape Town. But before we can get to his story, we have to spin the reel back in time — to my ninth summer.
I grew up on the Eastern side of Johannesburg. I didn’t have much ball skill yet my parents and I indulged in a short-lived fantasy of me, one day, stepping onto Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for the Men’s Single’s Final.
So every Wednesday I would go to the local tennis club for lessons. And it was after one such lesson, pushing my BMX through the club’s parking lot, that I saw one for the first time. It was very purple. And very ugly. It was a Citroën DS.
I have spent many moments in recent years meditating on that memory, trying to reconstruct what I saw and what I felt. Because today, more than 30 years later, I have an illogical love for this car. Like any affair, you want to understand how you fell into it, especially since owning three of them has cost me so much money.
But all I can remember is being struck by how strange looking it was. It didn’t look like the other cars parked around it. It had its rear-view mirror mounted low down, near the dashboard. And big, bulging eyes that reminded me of the spectacles of Dame Edna, the famous Aussie drag performer whose image flashed on our Telefunken at night.
Of course, as a nine-year-old boy, growing up in South Africa, I couldn’t have known that this car had already re-written automotive history. That it was described by the French philosopher Roland Barthes as La Déesse — the goddess — and that he had compared it to a gothic cathedral and even the seamless robe of Christ. I also couldn’t have known that it had already saved the life of French president, Charles de Gaulle, one afternoon in August 1962 when OAS gunmen on motorcycles showered his motorcade in bullets. They killed several side-riding policemen and punctured all four of the DS Limousine’s tires, but it just kept accelerating away, floating on the magic carpet of its hydraulic suspension.
No. I just paused, looked it, then got on my bike and continued my nine-year-old life. I buried the memory. My world was the size of a tennis ball.
The seasons ticked by and fantasies of sports fame set in the dusk of my teenage life as bright, twinkling dreams of a creative life emerged on the horizon. I became aware of more things in life that dared to go against convention, and how much power is unleashed when we dare to be different.
It’s this awareness that got me into a career in advertising, where being different is what enables you to bring home the bacon.
A fair slice of this bacon I took to the German mechanic in Somerset West. In all the time I lived in Cape Town, I owned three different DS models and he helped me keep them on the road.
Mister Kurt Wittig, a precision toolmaker by trade, was originally from Hamburg, Germany. Post-war Germany was a tough place to make a good life. One day he spotted a newspaper ad from the South African embassy calling for qualified technicians to bring their skills to South Africa’s young economy. So in 1968 he and his young wife packed up their few possessions, their one-year old son and their Plymouth Fury. They boarded a postal ship and moved their lives to Cape Town.
I have often wondered what those few weeks at sea must have been like for them. The sun, setting every night and the stars coming up. So much time to think as the ship kept sailing away from everything that was familiar, over the bulging horizon of the Atlantic slowly edging towards the Cape of Good Hope. Too late to turn around, like a foetus heading to the birth canal, the ancient surge of life edging you deeper into the vortex of what you need to become.
Finally in Cape Town, the couple got to work settling in. Mister Wittig found a job in a car dealership and they found a room to lodge in. They gradually established themselves in Somerset West. Their family expanded, Mister Wittig progressed from job to job, and they even got a dog, a German Shepherd whom they named Rex.
Eventually Mister Wittig ended up as a technician in the local Citroën dealership. It is here where he must have had his own tennis court moment, although I can’t speak to any of the details for sure. In all the times we spoke — and we almost exclusively always spoke about the DS — we never talked about the love for it. Our conversations were about parts that needed to replaced, tuned, or adjusted to make it perfect.
Somewhere along the line he made the decision to open a workshop that specialised only in the restoration and repair of the Citroën DS. A club of fervent DS lovers coagulated around his workshop. He became renowned throughout the country and DS lovers from all sorts of places sent their cars to Somerset West for maintenance.
For decades, Mister Wittig saw countless goddesses being towed to his front door, their bellies flat on the tar after all the pressure had left their hydro-pneumatic spheres. Then they’d leave days, weeks or months later, inflated and ready to waft along to their next destination with a Rex barking them goodbye from the front gate. (Whenever one of the Wittig dogs passed on, they’d get a new puppy and call it Rex.)
It was somewhere around the time of the fourth of fifth Rex that I acquired my first DS, and that I inevitably met Mister Wittig. Admittedly, this first lady was a rookie buying error on my side. There was a lot wrong with her that I should have known, had I know how and where to look.
At our first meeting at his workshop in Somerset West, I got to know Mister Wittig’s straightforward way. After exchanging short pleasantries he berated me for buying this car. He did what he could to help me keep her going but as he always reminded me, he is not a miracle worker.
I eventually sold that car, to another rookie I guess, and found a beautiful blue ’72 DS. I remember bringing her to Mister Wittig like a toddler, proudly showing his teacher a badly drawn, smudgy crayon car.
There was less head shaking, but nothing less than perfect was good enough for Mister Wittig. So he took time to point out the flaws and the work that was needed to make the car perfect. He himself owned five Citroëns, all in mint condition. Four of those were left to him by clients in their wills.
His love for the DS was implied, but not expressed. The closest he came was when I asked him about the Citroën SM, the intended successor to the DS — a car that I thought was lovely too. Mister Wittig looked at me as if I had uttered a curse, and told me in no uncertain terms to stay very far away from the SM. That was the most passionate I had ever seen him.
After I returned to South Africa from Switzerland in 2013, I found a beautiful yellow ’72 DS in Johannesburg. Eventually this car’s engine had to be rebuilt, which I will not expand upon here due to the emotional pain, but let’s just say I was a regular visitor in Somerset West from March to June, to see how things were progressing. And during that time, I became aware of a restoration he had just begun.
A family in Pretoria had their grandfather’s DS in their garden for about thirty years. Eventually they decided to have the car restored and sent it down to Mister Wittig. I saw that car when it had just arrived. Thirty years in a garden at the mercy of the elements does not take kindly to a car, even something as sturdy as the DS. This goddess was a wreck.
Every time I went there I could tell that he was worried because the cold Cape winter was coming, he was getting older and he was doing all the work on my car alone. A great deal still needed to be done on the Pretoria car.
Eventually my car was done. He had rebuilt the engine and created an equilibrium inside the car that is hard to explain to someone who is used to driving a modern car. The newest Rex, then a puppy, barked us goodbye. Finally Mister Wittig could focus on the Pretoria car.
At the end of that year I had to visit his workshop because, inevitably, something needed to be checked. Whilst we were talking I noticed a car under a drape in the back. I asked him if it was the Pretoria car.
I asked him if I could see it.
He lifted the drape. In that moment I was no longer in Somerset West, I was at the Paris Motor Show and it was 1955. I was one of the thousands clambering to see automotive genius. The brightest object to fall from the sky according to Barthes.
Every inch of her chrome shimmered. Every reflector and lens was polished and bright. The body panels, painted in vanilla white, were perfectly aligned. Her interior was re-upholstered with real leather and even under the fluorescent lights of the workshop she looked better than anything you’d ever seen in your life. Under her utterly lickable hood, her spheres were ready to inflate, to perk her up and take on the thousand miles back to Pretoria.
This wasn’t a restoration. It was a resurrection.
Yes, this car’s design was the flash of genius of the Italian sculptor Flaminio Bertoni and the French aerospace engineer André Lefèbvre. But it was the German toolmaker from Somerset West, Kurt Wittig, that brought her back to life. One man, doing what he loves everyday, doing it to perfection and not settling for anything less.
In my own journey my own sphere has inflated from the tennis-ball sized world of sporting dreams and BMX bicycles. I have spent the best part of my adult life in advertising agencies around the world, where we often talk about ideas in highly theoretical and, frankly speaking, often bullshit ways.
But Mister Wittig brings the idea to practice everyday. With every DS that keeps going, the genius of its design lives on and its story keeps spreading.
Now that I look back on my own journey, I can look down on my sphere and see what I’ve learnt. Most importantly, that talk is cheap and doing is expensive.
And that is all thanks to my hero, Mister Kurt Wittig.